Empathy always sounds like a simple thing: Put yourself in someone else's shoes, see how it feels, and consider those feelings before you act.

Yet it's likely you've dealt with many a leader--at jobs, in classrooms, on teams, in politics--who seemed to have failed Empathy 101.

On a Monday when most members of the business world are pausing to commemorate the legacy of Nintendo Chief Executive Satoru Iwata, who died Saturday at age 55, you can make a compelling case that his crowning achievement was his application of empathy--both in his games and at his company.

Here are a few examples, culled from Iwata's obituaries in the New YorkerNew York Times, and elsewhere:  

He personally conducted a series of interviews with Nintendo's employees. These interviews appeared on the Nintendo site under the heading, "Iwata Asks." Watch any of the videos, and you can see immediately how well-liked he is, and how at ease the employees are around him. It will make you wonder why every CEO doesn't conduct a series of video interviews like this one. 

"I remember him as being very actively interested in everything you had to say, and always talking about the technical aspects of making games," Dylan Cuthbert, a developer in Kyoto who once appeared on the series, told the New Yorker's Simon Parkin. "He'd even translate techno gobbledygook to people around him without a technical background."

He was accountable for his own performance. He regularly imposed pay cuts on himself--sometimes cutting his pay in half--whenever Nintendo's profits tumbled.

If you view the self-imposed pay cuts as part of Iwata's empathic legacy, they portray him in a flattering, accurate light. He did not pass the proverbial buck. He did not hide behind the rhetoric of teams. As a leader, he faced the music.  

He never forgot what it was like to be a developer of games....or a normal person who just wants to play them. As the New York Times obit points out, Iwata oversaw the production of the Gameboy game "Kirby's Dream Land." In this game, "a puffy pink protagonist who gobbles up enemies and spits them out as projectiles became a hallmark of casual game play for the mobile game device." In other words, the game isn't rocket science. Like Candy Crush, Tetris, or Pac Man, its charm is that anyone can grasp it in seconds--and start having fun. 

The New Yorker mentions that Iwata's knowledge of programming made him sympathetic not only to game players, but to his developers, too. "I never sensed that he thought he was more important, smarter, or more powerful than me, although he was all those things," developer Martin Hollis told Parkin. "I never felt he was my boss, or my boss's boss. I felt he was a friend who was trying to help me in my projects. There isn't another person like him in the world."

How will your employees remember you?

Published on: Jul 13, 2015